By Praxedis Bouwman, WACC Vice- President
| || ||Communication that is “top down” is best relegated to a museum! There is now an online, mobile global population with access to an enormous and dizzying array of information to read, listen to, view, and interact with. Churches and church organisations can only keep up with this development by seeing communication as central to the organisation as a whole. Communication needs to be approached as a holistic strategy, not scaled down as a “hands-on” service. |
|Praxedis Bouwman, WACC Vice- President|| || |
I find it puzzling that missiology, study and reflection about mission, is often structured in a holistic fashion, but that if I start speaking about “communication”, people in church structures tend to view it as a second- or third-ranked discipline. How effective could we be if theology, missiology and communication could walk hand in hand and cross-pollinate each other?
It is rather embarrassing to realise that churches, dealing with religion as the very basis of human existence, have in large part missed this shift in ‘how to get to or be in dialogue’ with people in this new communication reality. They’ve mainly failed because they lacked awareness of the rapid development and possibilities of the internet. And once behind, it is hard to catch up.
Perhaps there is more hope when it comes to keeping up with the most important means of communication for the near future: the mobile phone. Unlike the computer and the internet, which so far requires significant infrastructure and electricity, the mobile phone has coverage nearly everywhere, which should please those fearing information exclusion. Yet this mobile future also requires a reconsideration of ‘how to’ communicate, while it opens more doors to approach communication from a contextual and reciprocal point of view.
The World Association for Christian Communication (WACC) clearly expresses its vision in the principles of Christian Communication: “Jesus announced the coming of God's Kingdom and commissioned us to proclaim the Good News to all people until the end of time. Hearing the Good News, living by it and witnessing to it, is the basic calling of all Christians.” It is the Holy Spirit that “can change the Babel of confusion into the Pentecost of genuine understanding. But the Spirit 'blows where it pleases' (John 2:8), and no one, neither church nor religious group, can claim to control it.”
This intrinsic link between mission and communication goes farther, enabling true dialogue with justice at its core, according to the WACC principles: “The Gospel, being the Good News for the poor, needs to be constantly reinterpreted from the perspectives of the poor and oppressed. This challenges church hierarchies to disassociate themselves from the power structures which keep the poor in a position of subservience. In this sense, the Good News for the poor embodies genuine reconciliation by means of which the dignity of all people can be reaffirmed.”
The principles conclude: “Communication must be seen as central to the churches, as the process in which God's love is received and shared, thus establishing communion and community.”
Why does communication deserve such a core position? Reviewing the enormous amounts of literature, although rarely ones specifically about communication and religion, communication is clearly defined, not as some practical product or service, but as a process. I would put it as:
Communication is a complex symbolic process whereby reality is produced, maintained, repaired and transformed.
Communication is intertwined with culture, either leading culture, as some people state, or, as others say, a dominating part in culture. It is a basic human need and right, as stated in the WACC principles, “God’s great gift to humanity”, socially necessary for cohesion. It brings individuals, with their own perceptions and attitudes that may be based on beliefs that belong to a tradition, together in a common identity. The core of communication is to articulate, inspire and even transform that identity, for those inside that tradition as well as outside. These are the basics of communication particularly in relation to religion as well as in culture.
Leaving behind the “old” concept of communication as simply a process of transmission, we are moving into a “new” thinking: communication is a mutual process to build community. For religion it goes farther: to build a meaningful community of inclusion means empowering a community to communicate accurately and in a timely manner in and at all levels.
This challenges us to break new ground and reconsider the tensions between transmission, proclamation and dialogue; to reconsider and re-order the whole process of communication within the Church itself; to dare to think in forms of dialogue – bottom-up instead of top-down – and to think contextually. At its very basics it requires us to think about ourselves: Who are we as a church, who do we want to be, what do we have to offer? Because only by knowing the identity, the self-understanding of the church or church-related organization, can the body be relied upon by those attracted to it in dialogue.
Looking around us, we may not have much time to transform our communication. In my home country, the Netherlands, 300 Roman Catholic local churches have closed during the past 30 years, as well as 600 Protestant churches. That is 30 per year. In the next years it is predicted that at least two church buildings a week will close for religious purposes.
In these post-iron curtain times churches in Europe are having to make huge changes. Eastern European churches have had to catch up in many ways with the fast information society, while at the same time building up churches from the ruins of totalitarian regimes. Western European churches face a more and more secularized society. In both settings, churches have had to redefine their position and are still doing so.
What is needed
The question is, of course: how. How to have communication in the heart of churches, connected to missiology, theology and being holistic?
First as a precondition, I want to underscore the difference between church as an institution and church as the communion of saints. Church as an institution is an administrative construction, useful to order the life of the church and a necessity to regulate the organisation of communions. Church as the communion of all saints is, roughly said, the content of church. And that, logically, is where theology and missiology are located, where communication is. The church as the communion of all saints includes the institute, but is above all the church where the people are.
Let me say it slightly differently: church is where people are. Thus the second precondition before asking “how” is recognizing that no church, no communion can exist when there are no people. People relate to each other by communication. Everybody communicates. This given talent of human beings is considered so important that the right to communicate is even protected by international declarations, often declared in the same breath as the freedom of religion, often in the same breath. Communication has to be seen holistically because it is everywhere. It is the tool for connection, to be connected, to be human in the communion of all saints.
The major ingredient to enable holistic communication is ‘mutuality’. It must take account of all levels of the communion, as well as those outside. Then to enable this mutual communication to be effective, contextuality is another key.
There is no doubt that theology is holistic within the communion, and missiology is slowly becoming holistic instead of top-down, in various paces. Holistic communication needs to be the third major vein in the communion. Everyone, at every level, should be aware of communication: who are we, what do we have to offer, why are we who we are, how do we learn from each other, how do we develop, how do we attract, how do we express ourselves, etc. In this way communication is core.
The church as institution can be seen as the facilitator of processes and developments, and this is where this way of thinking has to start. So when decisions are being made and the church deliberates aspects of its life, communication professionals have to be there. Questions of mission, theology, the life of the communion of saints, cannot be decided in isolation, but alongside the questions – and answers – of how we share, speak, listen, show, reach out, change. Making decisions taken into account holistic communication deepens the questions and the answers right from the beginning.
The idea of a department of communication, generally seen in church institutions as a service department, is redundant. Communication professionals as a team are everywhere, not just “doing” but training, enabling and supporting all parts of the church so that the church is more effective and present in the lives of people. Communication professionals are spiders in the web - able to go where needed without barriers, reaching people where they are.
People are always able to communicate, and right now, so many are communicating in ways that leaves outdated church systems and hierarchies far behind. The church has to join them – to recognize the mutuality of the communion of states, the context in which we live and share. Holistic communication is a commitment to invest in technologies and promote attitudes that give people in the churches and church-related organisations) the chance to share, comment, create, shape the church: to be the church where the people are.
See WACC Christian Principles of Communication at: http://waccglobal.org/en/about-wacc/principles.html
Also read the latest issue of Meeting Point, the WACC-Europe regional newsletter here...